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Elephant grave

Inside a bookshop, I find a small book of photographs documenting the moments of the photographer’s father’s life.

I forget now the name of the book, the photographer’s name, or that of his father. But the father was 90 years old and had lost his wife and his short-term memory. He was an actor for a while in the ’30s. Back then, he was too young to grow a beard for a role, so hair had to be glued to his skin.

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I turn the pages. The father dies. Inside that well-lit bookshop, in between the stacks of culinary pages and books on financial management, I hold back my tears.

The last death that I remember in the family was my grandfather’s younger brother, Lolo Bert. When we lived in that old house in the city, he would often visit bearing gifts of sticky rice cakes and ripe mangoes harvested from their backyard during the summer months. We’d sit under the shade of that old guava tree, and he would make us laugh with a magic trick. He would go to the cinema on Mondays, sometimes by himself, because seniors were allowed a free movie pass on schedule. When he passed, all these things also went away. Suddenly, there were no longer any magic tricks, and the mangoes and the sticky rice stopped coming.

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He was buried in the small piece of land the family owned in a cemetery in the city. It’s the same place where my grandmother is buried. On the same day they buried Lolo Bert, they took her body out of her resting place, put it in a bag, and placed her with the bones of my younger brother, who had died as an infant shortly after my mother gave birth. What is left of them are the pieces of clothing they had been dressed with when they were buried, and an indistinguishable set of human bones, without a face, without skin and flesh, with no other indication of who they once were, or the kind of life they had lived, or weren’t able to.

I remember attending at least three funerals as a child. I was too young to remember more about them, but that’s different now. Now, death is etched more clearly in my consciousness, as if it’s a lesson I’ve been forced to learn but will never master. The rituals are exactly the same. The casket sinks into the ditch. Someone utters a prayer. The gravedigger shovels dirt into the rectangular hole in the ground, while friends and family members sob quietly, and watch.

When we lose someone we love, it creates a gap in the threads of our soul that cannot be filled by anything else, or replaced by anyone else. That person exists, and then is gone, and there’s no logical explanation that can justify the aftermath of their departure. Their life just ends, and we gather the pieces of the life they left behind, some trinkets that will no longer serve a purpose—the book on the shelf dog-eared on page 182, the smoker’s ashtray left in the nonsmoker’s apartment, the journals, the now empty space on the bed that carried their weight for at least a thousand sunsets.

What do we do with all these things? Burn them, maybe. Give them away. Bury them in the dirt. Between the layers of the earth, there must be a thousand different things buried underneath, left there by the grieving.

Recently, someone told me I looked exactly like my grandmother in her youth. This no longer surprises me. People who knew her while she was still alive would see me in the streets and be sure that I was her grandchild. Even after years of being dead, her memory remains through each piece of herself we’d inherited through genetics. Our family tree consists of multiple bits and pieces, making up the image of a face that is preserved forever, even if it no longer exists.

One of the most intelligent creatures of the animal kingdom is the elephant. The mourning rituals of elephants are a standard observed behavior across the species. They cover the carcass of their dead with leaves, grass, and tree branches, as if a protection from other predators. After weeks of mourning, they move on, migrate to safer territory, but almost always they come back, as if a natural force pulls them to the place where they had laid the body of their beloved. When they arrive at the elephant grave, they touch the ground, tap gently at the bones with their trunks, as if to say, “We’re back. We came back for you. We remember you.”

Can you imagine that kind of remembering? When humans die, in a few years our body will decay into nothing but an unrecognizable set of bones. In the National Museum of Natural History, you can look at someone’s skull inside a glass case, but we never learn their names. What did their family call them? How did they care for the people they loved? A set of phalanges can’t tell you whose hands they’ve held with. A femur cannot reveal their owner’s hiding places, the spaces they retreated to where they felt most safe.

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People lose things all the time—a pencil, a pair of glasses, a lover, bodies we once held, those we swore we will never forget. Memory is such a fragile thing. If it weren’t for photographs, or names written on journals, we’d so easily be forgotten. In this way, it becomes a responsibility to have somebody carry these stories. The ripe mangoes, the magic tricks, the laughter we shared under the old guava tree. We carry the story and share them with the next kin, hoping that when it’s time for our own departure, they will do the same for us.

When we die, we’ll all look the same. The little details that used to identify us, like the shape of our hands, the moles on our skins, or the way our lips curled when we smiled, would no longer exist. But through stories, we hope to be remembered, so that in the years following our departure, when the people we have left behind encounter the bones of their beloved, they will be able to say, “We’re here. We came back for you. We remember you.”

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Charmaine Louise Escalante-Tabinas, 28, lives in Pampanga. She works as an accountant for not-for-profit organizations based in the US.

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